The Annual Southern Living Best of the South Issue has two great contributions by the estimable Robert Moss. He’s the guy who has the job I almost … almost wish I had. (I’ll stick to being the Principal Assistant Nanny for Ella and Lily Boyd over any job … Supreme Court Justice, Commissioner of Baseball … even Barbecue Editor for Southern Living.)
For one of the pieces, Moss picked out nine “barbecue places that are worth a detour.” Definitely read his article — and subscribe to the always informative and entertaining Cue Sheet. The headline writers, with their passion for clickbait, ultimately titled the piece “The South’s Most Legendary Barbecue Joints, 2021.” The list is no such thing. Moss’ initially proposed “The South’s Best BBQ Secrets” was much more accurate. The places he picked are not the usual “legends.” You probably haven’t heard of all nine of the places — maybe none of them. The whole point was to identify some hidden gems.
I’ve heard of each of the places, and I’ve reviewed six of the nine. Each review is linked below. I’m eager to get to the rest — as time and waistline permit. Of course, I’ll quibble a bit and kibbitz. That’s what lawyers do, even recovering lawyers like me.
Ah! You noticed that my headline calls for 10 barbecue places as opposed to Moss’ nine. Indeed it does. I decided to round out the list with one more hidden gem, one of purest ray serene.
Archibald’s, Northport, Alabama
Moss extols the ribs at Archibald’s, and properly so. Archibald’s makes the best ribs in the world. They also make great pork barbecue, and in the last few years they’ve started cooking perhaps the best chicken around. So why haven’t you heard of Archibald’s?
Football. Huh? Yes, football. For decades, whenever an Alabama home game was televised, the announcers would go eat ribs at the original Dreamland, just across the river in Tuscaloosa. Why Dreamland and not Archibald’s? Dreamland is much larger and can accommodate a bunch of people and, perhaps most important, Dreamland sells beer. The sportscasters would eat ribs and drink beer and then talk about the Dreamland ribs during slow points in the game. Dreamland is good, and their sauce is sensational, but Archibald’s is the best, and it is well worth a detour.
Backyard BBQ Pit, Durham, North Carolina
Moss describes Backyard BBQ as an unheralded gem — just the sort of spot for the list. All the meats are good, cooked over oak and hickory, but the best is the “chopped pork [g]enerously dressed in a red pepper-laced vinegar sauce.” It just happens that chopped pork generously dressed in a red pepper-laced vinegar sauce is, to me, the ultimate in barbecue. I haven’t been to Backyard BBQ Pit. There’s a lot of big talk about new barbecue places headed for Raleigh, but Backyard BBQ is now at the top of my must-try list for the Triangle. Except maybe for Ed Mitchell’s.
Big John’s Alabama BBQ, Tampa, Florida
Moss mentioned Big John’s prominently in an earlier article about which I posted here. We go to Florida two or three times every year, but I rarely eat barbecue there. When I’m in Florida I focus on fresh seafood. Okay, and Cuban pork. I’ve happened upon a couple of good rib places in Palm Beach County, Off Tha Bone and Troy’s, but with my diet I really need to focus on seafood.
Gary Lee’s Market, Brunswick, Georgia
When I wrote The Best Places to Eat Near I-95 Between Washington and Florida, I got comments about Gary Lee’s from both Robert Moss and the Chicago Symphony’s David Sanders, my favorite cellist, Pablo Casals no longer being with us. I really appreciate tips from readers. A big reason I write this blog is so I can learn about new places to eat good barbecue. At any rate, with those endorsements, you need to head over to Gary Lee’s. Moss praises tangy barbecue sauce, and the accompanying picture shows, curiously, some good looking pork chops. Slap one of those between two slices of white bread with some of the tangy sauce … Man!
King’s Famous Barbecue, Pertersburg, Virginia
I visited King’s at the suggestion of the Godfather, John Shelton Reed. I basically do whatever he tells me to do. Perhaps not with dispatch, but I get to it, or will, in the fullness of time. John is the co-founder, with Dan Levine (whom I also obey), of the invaluable Campaign for Real Barbecue, which produces the nation’s best culinary travel guide. I really like King’s. The pork is very good and King’s has that sense of place that adds so much to the barbecue experience. King’s also can boast some very good sides and great biscuits.
You don’t hear much about Arkansas barbecue, except for Jones and McClard’s, and even they may have escaped your notice. That’s a shame, because Arkansas has some of the best barbecue around. The Kream Kastle, for example, is definitely worth a detour — worth almost as much as a detour to the Dixie Pig, also in Blytheville. Both are great. Both adopt the genius move of adding simple chopped cabbage to the sandwich instead of a slaw. The contrast in texture and the bitterness brought by the cabbage without the distraction of the slaw dressing, united with great pork by a superb vinegar-pepper sauce — magic!
I suspect Moss picked Kream Kastle because it’s a drive-in. There’s no seating outside your car. I can see the charm of that. Once.
Sitting down and talking with friends, the servers, and strangers at the next table has more enduring charm, however. For me, that camaraderie is a key part of a great barbecue experience. Also, the Dixie Pig meat is smokier, and the rougher cut of their cabbage heightens the contrast of flavor and texture. And their sauce …. Try a sandwich at each place. They’re well worth the drive up from Memphis, or down from St. Louis, or over from Los Angeles.
While you’re in Blytheville, do stop by the Blytheville Book Company and have cup of coffee (or perhaps a beer of a glass of wine). It’s an excellent book store, the worthy successor to That Bookstore, the sort of place that really deserves your support.
McCabe’s Bar-B-Q Manning, South Carolina
McCabe’s cooks whole hogs beautifully. The barbecue tastes great, especially dressed with their pepper and vinegar sauce. McCabe’s has excellent sides, and Robert Moss touts their hash, which I didn’t try, so I’ll have to go back. (I plan to conduct a hash survey on my long-delayed South Carolina eating trip.)
That said, I actually much prefer Shuler’s, which is just a few miles north of McCabe’s. Shuler’s chops their barbecue, whereas McCabe’s just pulls theirs — very roughly. See the photo in my post. Chopped barbecue is so much better and a lot easier to eat, especially when you’re relying on plasticware. I think pulled pork is a relatively new term, coined by people bragging that they can pull the meat apart. Of course you can. Just because you can pull it doesn’t mean you should, or that you shouldn’t chop it after it’s pulled. Also, while Shuler’s uses a mustard rather than a vinegar and pepper sauce, they have the best mustard sauce around.
Starnes Bar-B-Q, Paducah, Kentucky
I really need to get to Kentucky. Just look at the Campaign for Real Barbecue’s Kentucky list. I’ve never been to Starnes but it sounds great from Moss’ description. And Paducah made Southern Living’s 2020 Best Small Towns in the South list as noted in this philippic. David Boyd, my co-grandfather, came up in Paducah, and that’s a big point in its favor. Moss suggests getting both a pork sandwich and a smoked bologna sandwich at Starnes. I shall.
Okay, those are Moss’ nine picks. What’s the tenth place worth a detour? There are so many hidden gems. Ramey’s leaps to mind, and Rick’s Smokehouse would be famous if it weren’t in the deep shadow of Lexington #1, yet I’d never heard of it a year ago. And you’re going to detour to Grady’s anyway. I could go on, but in the end, the choice is plain.
Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden, North Carolina
Ayden is, of course, the home of the legendary Skylight Inn, perhaps the most legendary barbecue place of all — the place National Geographic declared the Barbecue Capital of the World 40-odd years ago. The Skylight Inn’s chopped pork with bits of skin is marvelous, one of the great dishes anywhere. But at the very least, Bum’s pork gives it a run for its money. Bum’s has it all. Great wood-cooked chopped pork flecked with bits of skin, Eastern North Carolina corn sticks, and sensational sides, including heirloom collards as good as any collards in the world.
Why isn’t Bum’s better known? Well, some unfortunate people suffer from a terrible disability that makes them dislike the smell of collards. My heart goes out to them, and to the poor souls who object to the smell of barbecue cooking. There but for fortune. Mostly, though, it’s that Bum’s is in the shadow of the Skylight Inn, and lots of folks simply cannot imagine that a town as small as Ayden would have two of the world’s greatest dining places on earth.
I urge you to follow the Cue Sheet, and to eat at each of these places. And check the Campaign for Real Barbecue’s website before you travel. There’s lots of great barbecue out there. To paraphrase, full many a pit was born to smoke unseen and waste its fragrance on the desert air. Hmm. Didn’t really work. Don’t get above your raisin’, John.
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